By Jaime Guerrero
In Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 masterpiece The Conversation, a professional eavesdropper is unable to distance himself from his profession. At some point, his spying led to the deaths of a woman and a child and he fears that it will happen again.
It was with that film in mind that I watched Spielberg’s Munich, a portrayal of Israel’s response to the terrorist attacks during the Munich Olympics. On September 6, 1972, 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage and eventually murdered by a Palestinian terrorist group known as Black September. The movie tells the story of the group of agents sent to track down and kill those behind the attacks.
The leader of the group is Avner (Eric Bana), a young agent who agrees to be away from his family in order to go through with the mission. He is so young, in fact, that the others assigned to the mission wonder why he was picked. Avner is given four teammates: Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), an expert at dismantling bombs who is now asked to build them (he is also a toymaker); Carl (Ciaran Hinds), who specializes in getting rid of evidence after every killing; Hans (Hans Zischler), a forger; and Steve (Daniel Craig), the trigger man.
Eventually, the group finds and kills several of the people on the list. The screenplay by Tony Kushner (based on the novel Vengeance by George Jonas) largely deals with the group setting up and making the sure the killings are carried out properly. Munich works well as a suspenseful thriller: there are sequences in the film Hitchcock would have been proud of, as when the team waits for a little girl to leave a house so that they can kill her father, or when they follow a man through rainy streets with the intent to kill him but are interrupted by a drunken old man who thinks he recognizes Avner.
The mission eventually begins to take a psychological toll on the group when they stop and think about it. They do not completely trust the nature of their job. Harry Caul, the professional bugger in The Conversation, goes through the same questioning stage when he becomes more involved in the problems of a client than he should.
There are arguments amongst the agents about one of them being a spy, and Avner sends his family to Brooklyn because he fears they might be in trouble. His suspicions arise from the people with whom he has become involved with. Louis (Matthieu Almaric), a Parisian, has been locating the people on the list. Later in the film, Louis tells Avner that other people may be looking for him and asking for the same service.
Avner completely loses sight of what he is doing and completely stops trusting the mission. “There is no peace at the end of this,” he says, disillusioned after having already killed several people. “If these people are committing crimes, then we should have arrested them,” he says at another time.
There are flashbacks throughout the movie to the night of September 6 which provide more information and a subjective account of what happened. At one point, Spielberg shows the athletes killed out of the terrorists’ fear. The movie also shows Israeli officials not following through on the arrangements they had made to save the athletes. These flashbacks are key because they allude to the uncertainties that have taken over Avner and his mission.
Though the film is well constructed, Munich lacks the effortlessness of Coppola’s film. Spielberg relies on narrative gibberish to carry several parts of the story along while The Conversation goes from one astonishing scene to the next, à la Fellini. Bana’s Avner doesn’t quite manage to create the tragic humanity that Gene Hackman does as bugger Harry Caul.
Munich is a courageous move for Spielberg. I for one was not expecting the founder of the Shoah Foundation and director of Schindler’s List to release a film that separates itself from both the Jews and the Palestinians and takes an honest (yet critical) look at years of terrorism and reprisals.
The film has been wrongly described as an attack on the Palestinians and an unfair depiction of what Israel did in response. However, at its core, the film is an analytical and ethical statement about Israel’s Post-Munich strategies. It poses complex questions that are as relevant today as they were in 1972. Was it right, as Avner asks, for Israel to retaliate the way it did? Could it afford not to? may be the response from those who assigned him the mission.
The key moment comes from Prime Minister Golda Meir (played by Lynn Cohen) early in the film: “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.”